The most common complaint I’ve seen regarding John Frame’s recent Systematic Theology is that it does not contain enough historical theology. It approximates “biblicism” (cue scary music) in its approach to the Reformed faith. And while I might attribute a greater degree of significance to historical theology and confessions than does Dr. Frame (though I’m not entirely sure of this), I want to write briefly in his defense here.
The truth is, the Reformed world needs this “biblicist” systematic theology, and for several reasons:
1. No matter how much we pay lip-service to the subordinate authority of confessions, there are many in the Reformed world who seem to functionally treat the confessions as on par with Scripture. Even if this is not their heart’s intention and even if they argue that quoting the confession in theological disputes is appropriate precisely because the confessions are “biblical,” the simple point of fact is that the confessions are not the Bible. And when Reformed believers relate to their non-Reformed Christian brethren about doctrines we hold dear, the thing they need to know and emphasize the most is the Bible. The Bible alone is God’s speech (i.e. words) to His people, and as such, it is the common ground that we share with all our Christian brothers and sisters. Do you want to persuade ordinary believers of the Reformed faith? Then show them that the Bible teaches the Reformed faith.
2. Some systematic theologies are very strong on philosophical and historical issues, but forget to go over the basic biblical commonplaces for defending a position. I have often wanted to find the (forgive me) “proof texts” for various topics, and have been sorely disappointed. Never with Frame. Every time I try to explore even the most esoteric doctrines (divine atemporality, etc), Frame presents the main texts (and several besides) and then discusses what can and cannot be derived from them. This is so helpful for the teacher of theology. For many, Frame’s work will be the “go to” for approximating the sorts of texts a Reformed person might appeal to for our various distinctives.
3. While I wish Frame would state certain doctrines in stronger and more traditional language (divine simplicity, especially), his work is actually a help to the historical theologian because his views are mostly traditional. He does use some terms more broadly (law/gospel) and he adds a distinctive “Frame-flavor” (a wealth of triads, vocabulary, etc) to many doctrines. But most of the time, these “special touches” are either pedagogically useful or (at least) warrant reflection. And in either case, the substance is quite traditional– whatever the artifice. In my judgment, it takes only a small dose of critical evaluation to see this clearly. And for those (like myself) who are comfortable with a very pronounced role for reason in theology, Frame is usually a great place to go to determine how far we can get toward certain classical doctrines from Scripture alone. In some cases, Scripture “hints at” certain classical formulations which might nevertheless have a more elaborate defense from reason (in coordination with Scripture). If one does not feel the need for all truth to have a “Bible verse” to support it, then one can be easily motivated to be honest about the extent to which Scripture approximates traditional theology. And Frame is perhaps the most helpful and honest author I’ve found in showing where Scripture most closely approximates classical Christian doctrine without feeling the need to say that it goes “all the way” in each case. In short, Frame stops where the Bible stops.
4. Frame is also a philosopher by trade and so his “biblicism” does not result in the sort of shoddy exegesis or overly quick inference that often plagues such an approach. His judgments are measured with the sharp mind of a philosopher and the wisdom of one who has walked long with Christ. Even when you disagree, he asks the questions that must be grappled with. This is a biblicism with philosophical precision and a love for Christ and His church that jumps off the page. This is “the application of the word of God to our questions,” which is something like Frame’s definition of theology.
5. What is more, most of the philosophical and existential asides are more contemporary is nature than their historical theological counter-parts. Again, while I think these latter are important and essential, it is also very useful to see someone address the sorts of philosophical issues, practical problems, and common questions that might arise in a Sunday School classroom or in a conversation with a moderately educated non-historian. Several other systematic theologians have done this as well, but the reader will always walk away from Frame’s own analyses with either some nuts and bolts tools that get right to the heart of the issue, or they will be challenged to think very hard about an alternative.
In short, Frame’s is something of a “go to” systematician for determining the Biblical material that must be engaged in grappling with a topic. And he is a top contender for determining the sorts of questions that need to be answered if one is to resist his own skeptical or non-committal treatment of some traditional formulations, as well as for addressing contemporary questions in a pedagogically useful manner. Frame’s work really is for the people of God and it always directs them with humility, wisdom, and precision to His voice above all else.
9 replies on “Why I Love John Frame’s “Biblicism” & You Should Too”
If you’ve read it, how would you compare Frame’s ST work with Grudem’s ST Work.
I really enjoyed Grudem’s book, and I’m wondering if I should expend the effort, time, and money in plowing through Frame’s work.
I’m just a layman who likes this stuff.
I can’t compare it to Grudem precisely. I have not engaged that work much. I suspect from what I’ve heard of Grudem, however, that Frame’s work might be more idiosyncratic (though I have heard Grudem spends a large portion on his “pet” topics). Frame is also a philosopher by training, and I think this flavors the whole. Sorry I could not help you more. Perhaps others can.
Grudem’s Systematic is pretty good. I like it because it is so simple, however, it fails to interact with biblical theology and exegesis of some texts seriously. Plus, Grudem does not explain his theological method. I would recommend Erickson’s newly revised Systematic Theology instead of Grudem’s. Frame is excellent, but I prefer Bavinck’s instead.
Wow thank you for these points. Same reason why I like Frame. I appreciate his nuance as well.
TruthUnites, if I recall, Grudem’s systematic leaves some opening for “continuationism”. What do you think of that?
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Grudem was my first ST. As a new convert, it met me where I was at the time. I needed things explained in a very simplistic manner, but don’t get me wrong, Grudem made my head swim at times. Frame’s ST, on the other hand, has a depth that takes one out into deeper waters than Grudem. While I don’t regret Grudem’s ST, I would have prefered to have been able to get my hands on Frame’s ST 4 years ago. (Anyone want a good deal on Grudem’s ST? )
John Bugay is correct, Grudem is a continuationist and it shows in his ST at times.
Thanks Thom Cole 🙂
Thanks for pointing out Dr. Frame’s strengths. You’ve stated them well. Perhaps the uninitiated will be be led to check him out. I’ve learned much from Dr. Frame, the philosophical theologian; or the theological philosopher; or perhaps a third option. There’s got to be a third option. Thanks again for this post.